Managing Editor: David Sper
Cover: Michael Forrest
©1995 RBC Ministries--Grand Rapids, MI 49555 Printed in USA
The woman speaking on the phone was noticeably upset. Her voice shaking uncontrollably, Cindy explained that her husband Ron, who had been drinking the previous night, tracked her down with a loaded gun and threatened to kill her.
Cindy was terrified. Yet this was not the first time Ron had been abusive to her. On numerous occasions throughout their 4 troubled years of marriage, he had physically battered and verbally humiliated her.
Unfortunately, marriages like Ron and Cindy's are not rare--even within the church. Although it may be argued that the problem of spouse abuse is not as widespread in the church, it is still shockingly prevalent. For example, consider Bill and Karen's marriage. On the surface, they seemed to be a "normal" Christian couple. Bill had a successful career. Together they owned a modest home, had two beautiful children, and attended church regularly. But for several years they shared an ugly secret: Bill was relentlessly abusive.
Shortly after the honeymoon, the verbal thrashings began. Bill pointed out every mistake Karen made. She didn't cook "his" meals right. She didn't keep "his" house clean. She wasn't sexually responsive enough. Any time she did do something well, he would take the credit, informing her that it was only because he pushed her that she succeeded. Karen felt worthless and inferior.
It didn't take long before Bill started shoving her around. Less than 2 years into their marriage, Bill was slapping Karen on an almost weekly basis. He watched her like a hawk and berated her with harsh criticism. Even on their better days, Karen felt betrayed, trapped, and frightened that the physical abuse would return. This is not what she expected marriage to be, and it seemed as if there was nothing she could do about it.
How should endangered women like Cindy and Karen respond? What about Karen's role as a Christian wife? Does following a Christlike path mean she should continue to be submissive to an abusive husband? Can she seek protection? Is there a way to lovingly hold him responsible for his behavior?
Women like Karen and Cindy often feel alone, without hope, and without options. Many blame themselves for their husbands' anger or violence. Often they are confused about what is really happening not only to them but inside them as well. Because their husbands seem to have everyone else fooled with their persuasive charm, these women wonder at times if they are losing their minds.
If this describes you, you are not alone. Many other women have also experienced the predictable cycle and damages of spouse abuse that will be described in the first half of this booklet.
Coming to terms with what has been happening to you may be frightening. The road ahead will not be easy. But there is hope. There is a dawn beyond the darkness. While many problems will never be solved this side of heaven, there is much that can be done. Many have learned that there is help available from God and from the people He can bring into your life.
You don't need to waste the pain of your abuse on further denial and passive tolerance of your husband's illegal and ungodly behavior. There is help for those who learn to respond in a Christlike and biblical way when violence comes home.
Authors Tim Jackson and Jeff Olson are licensed counselors in Michigan and work in the RBC biblical correspondence department.
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How Widespread Is Wife Abuse?
Research shows that battering is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States--more than "rapes, muggings, and traffic accidents combined" (Ann Jones, Next Time, She'll Be Dead, p.87, Beacon Press, 1994). The Bureau of Justice's National Crime Survey reports that a woman is battered in her home every 15 seconds (The Battered Woman's Survival Guide, p.4).
Spouse abuse has no economic, educational, racial, or religious boundaries. It occurs in families from all walks of life. Abused women are homemakers, doctors, teachers, day-care workers, nurses, secretaries, and bankers. They are married to businessmen and janitors, factory workers and accountants, doctors and even church leaders.
While it's true that some women pose a real threat of endangerment to their husbands, the majority of incidents involve men abusing their wives. Therefore, this booklet will focus on wife abuse.
How Is Spouse Abuse Defined?
Marital abuse is the misuse of power and control. It's an attempt to coerce and control one's spouse through emotional and/or physical means. Specific physical examples include slapping, scratching, biting, kicking, shoving, choking, hitting, sexual assault, stabbing, and shooting. But in some cases, no physical assault or battery is involved. Subtle verbal attacks and violations of dignity are often enough to intimidate and control. Extended periods of silence or uninvolvement, glares, name-calling, and excessive criticism can be sufficient to dominate a spouse. In the most severe cases, a combination of both emotional and physical abuse are involved.
There are many degrees of abuse. All marital relationships experience at least subtle forms of controlling behavior. Yet at some point, reasonable and fair-minded people recognize that when controlling behavior becomes excessive, it requires intervention. Marital relationships are not above the law. There are criminal statutes against willful endangerment. Many states are developing specific domestic violence legislation to assist in the enforcement of the assault and battery that threatens a growing number of homes.
What Is The Cycle Of Abuse?
An abusive relationship typically follows a cycle that is marked by three well-recognized phases (The Battered Woman, Lenore E. Walker, 1979). Although there are some variations from this cycle, many abusive relationships will repeat this cycle over and over.
The tension-building phase is a period of time when a wife either avoids her husband or frantically works to keep her husband's world running smoothly. She does this to prevent triggering another abusive explosion. In this way, she holds some "limited control" in the relationship.
Sometimes there are minor skirmishes, but the wife suppresses her anger by either blaming herself ("I should have kept quiet about the credit-card bill") or something in the man's environment ("He must have had a tough day at work") or reasoning that it could have been worse. Each time a small abusive incident occurs, tension in the relationship increases. A nagging sense of helplessness begins to overwhelm her. Eventually the tension simmers to a boil, bringing on the next phase. Ordinarily, this first phase lasts for long periods of time.
The acute battering or abusive phase is earmarked by increased severity of abuse. Unlike the minor abusive incidents that occurred in the first phase, the incidents in this phase are far more caustic. This phase is usually triggered by some particular event or set of circumstances, though rarely the same and often unpredictable. Like a violent storm that strikes on a clear, sunny day, the physical attack or verbal assault seems to come out of nowhere. It could be a meal that is unsatisfactory or a refusal to have sex that sets off a husband. Normally, this phase lasts from 2 to 24 hours (The Battered Woman, p.60).
Initially, a wife is in a state of shock and disbelief. It's difficult for her to come to grips with what has happened to her. If she's been through the abusive cycle several times, she's likely to experience a mixture of relief and rage--relief that the inevitable assault is over, and rage over her husband's empty promises to stop.
She may be faced with the need for medical treatment. She might report her husband to the authorities or inform family members of the abuse. Typically, however, she remains silent and doesn't expose her husband. Within her is an increasing sense of helplessness and feelings of self-hatred for not doing something to prevent the abuse.
The calm-and-penance phase is a time when the abuser appears to be stricken with grief over his cruel and insensitive actions. He works very hard to make up for what he's done with apparent acts of kindness, promising never to abuse again. Usually, a wife welcomes this phase and enjoys the special attention given to her. Because she desperately wants to believe that her husband is sincere, she tends to overrate the genuineness of his remorse. During this time she may drop criminal charges or shrink away from pursuing legal separation or divorce. She will frequently come up with "reasonable" explanations as to why her husband mistreated her. This phase may last a day or a few months, and it tends to become less and less common. Eventually, however, the tensions will slowly begin to mount and the cycle will repeat.
Sometimes the calm-and-penance phase is substituted with a sudden-return-to-normal phase. In this phase, there is often a significant period of silence. A wife may be hoping that her husband will apologize. But what usually happens is that her husband eventually begins to act as if nothing ever happened. The abusive incident is not mentioned and no apology is offered. Life just somehow goes back to "normal." But because their problems are not exposed and worked through, the tension escalates, leading to another abusive episode.
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Whether subtle or blatant, emotional or physical, spouse abuse pierces the body and soul of a woman. While there are varying degrees of damage, all forms of abuse inflict painful wounds.
Countless wives have sought medical attention for the physical trauma they have received at the hands of an enraged, out-of-control husband. These include bruises, scrapes, scratches, cuts, internal injuries, and broken bones. Others have quietly endured the pain of a bloodied nose or a sprained neck or shoulder.
Many women claim that the wounds that go unseen hurt the most. These involve the sting of betrayal, feelings of powerlessness, a loss of freedom, and a shredding of dignity. While there is much overlap among the four, it's helpful to examine each one separately.
The Sting Of Betrayal. An abused spouse is disillusioned. The marriage relationship is a far cry from what she expected it to be. One abused wife tearfully recalled her dream of being happily married to a man who truly loved and cherished her. Though there may have been a few occasions before their marriage when her husband's anger was explosive and way out of proportion, she never dreamed it would be directed toward her to such an extreme.
In the early stages of their relationship, the husband often smothers a wife with kindness. His apparent love and concern for her is what she finds so attractive. Hidden under his cloak of charm and gentleness, however, is a scheme to possess and control her. Eventually her dreams are shattered as she realizes that she's married to a possessive, controlling man. She feels betrayed, and the sting of betrayal deepens as her husband repeatedly breaks his promise to stop the abuse. As a result, abused wives often find it difficult to trust people--even individuals who could help.
Feelings Of Powerlessness. A husband's superior physical strength and intimidating threats, or cultural and religious expectations, or economic restrictions leave an abused wife with the feeling that she is unable to stop the abuse. Her sense of powerlessness intensifies as she begins to recognize that she can't prevent or end the damage and pain the abuse has caused her and her children.
Over time, an abused wife begins to believe that the abuse is somehow her fault. She doubts herself as a wife, housekeeper, mother, and lover. Although she may excel at a job with many important responsibilities, she does not feel competent in her home. After an abusive incident, one woman said, "If only I wouldn't have asked him to look at the car when it was acting up. Then maybe he wouldn't have slammed me against the wall."
Loss Of Freedom. An abusive marriage is earmarked by a decrease of freedom on the part of a wife. Her husband may limit her social life, tell her whom she can be friends with, or impose strict financial restraints. In extreme cases, a wife must get "permission" before doing anything out of her normal daily routine. In an attempt to control his wife and keep the abuse silent, the husband often makes all of her major decisions. In any event, the wife begins to feel as if she has no life of her own. She feels as though she has no voice to speak; and if she did speak, no one would pay any attention.
Shredding Of Dignity. None of us can ever fully lose our dignity, though there are times we may feel like we have. Yet a person's dignity can be seriously attacked. An abused wife has her dignity assaulted on a regular basis. She's constantly reminded that she can't think for herself. She's often treated like an inanimate object that is used and discarded like an empty pop can. She's treated as if she has no legitimate feelings, thoughts, or desires. Many times she feels as if she has "ceased to exist as a person." This sometimes leads to a "hollow" appearance in which she seems emotionally barren.
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There are several myths surrounding the issue of wife abuse. Let's look at four of them:
Myth #1--Some Men Can't Help Themselves.
Some believe that there are men who don't have the ability to cope with frustration. It's said that these men have no choice but to abuse. In responding to this claim, James and Phyllis Alsdurf state, "If frustrating situations offered only one option, abusers would be equally violent on the job, driving in traffic, or interacting with friends; but that is simply not true. The majority of abusers direct their violence specifically and purposely toward their wives" (Battered Into Submission, p.68). Additionally, this is a dangerous view to hold because it allows the abuser to dodge responsibility for his actions. Failure to hold abusers responsible only adds fuel to a fire burning out of control.
Myth #2--Alcohol Is The Problem.
While alcohol and other drugs are involved in many abusive marriages, there are others where they are not. It is wrong to assume that alcohol or drugs are the fundamental cause of spouse abuse. While chemical dependencies often inflame and complicate abusive relationships, they are only part of the problem. Removing alcohol, for instance, still leaves the heart and root of the abuse unexposed and unchallenged.
Myth #3--Abused Women Are Themselves To Blame.
Some believe that wife abuse would not occur if it were not for women who drive their husbands over the edge. They point out that some women "bait" their husbands into abusing them with a frigid attitude or constant nagging. They maintain that some women actually "buy" the attention and sympathy of others by provoking their husbands to violence.
While there may be occasions when this kind of "baiting" exists, it is rare. It's a well-known fact that battered women generally keep the abuse private (Battered Into Submission, p.74). That's why wife battering is commonly referred to as the "silent crime." Battered women normally don't seek sympathy from others. They keep it to themselves because of the shame they feel, and because they're afraid of what might happen if they report their husbands' behavior.
Some wives admit to provoking their husbands' rage, not because they like being abused but because they have been through the cycle enough times to know that after the storm their husbands are inclined to be remorseful, kind, and gentle. Additionally, "getting the abuse over with" eases the enormous fear of not knowing when the next abusive storm will strike. For many abused wives, living with the overwhelming fear of not knowing when the abuse will happen again is worse than the abusive incident itself.
In some marriages, the wife is more verbal than her husband. She can outmaneuver him in an argument, give him reason to feel weak and incompetent, and sometimes provoke him to anger. When he finally blows up, her moral superiority and low opinion of him appear to be confirmed. He feels even lower about himself, while she, at considerable cost to herself, appears to be vindicated.
Again, while such relationships exist, they do not prove that a woman is to blame for being abused. No one should ever be blamed for another's abusive behavior.
Myth #4--The Bible Does Not Permit Christian Women To Report An Abusive Husband.
This is probably the most serious of all myths because so many battered women have been encouraged to silently apply "the submissive wife" principle of 1 Peter 3. So many well-meaning pastors and counselors have sent wives back into an abusive home after quoting the apostle Peter's words:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear (1 Pet. 3:1-6).
Then in one additional verse Peter went on to say to husbands:
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.(1 Pet. 3:7)
These clear words and timeless principles are often misapplied in abuse situations for several reasons:
Differences Of Culture. In his commentary, William Barclay explains, "It may seem strange that Peter's advice to wives is six times as long as his advice to husbands. That was because the wife's problem was far more difficult than that of the husband. If a husband became a Christian, he would automatically bring his wife with him into the church, and there would be no problem. But if a wife became a Christian, while her husband did not, she had taken a step which in the ancient world was unprecedented, and which produced the acutest problems." Barclay then goes on to describe the lack of legal protection offered to women in the first century.
First-century women and slaves could not appeal to 20th-century assault and battery laws. An endangered woman did not have the option of calling 911, an abuse hotline, or her local police. In our day, we can teach the timeless principles of Peter and also, in the event of domestic violence, we can call on the provisions of government and law enforcement that God has given us (Rom. 13:1-7). If the husband is a believer, and his abuse has not escalated to criminal proportions, a woman can also appeal to the principles of Matthew 18:15-18 and ask the church to intervene in her behalf.
When an abused woman does ask the church for help, it is important to remember that the God of the Bible has always asked people of strength to come to the assistance of those who are weak and oppressed (Ezek. 34:4). Godly people must not send a battered woman back to her home with the advice to "be more submissive." They need to do everything possible to provide whatever legal, social, or spiritual protection is available. When appropriate, they will help a battered woman to apply the full extent of the law. Their motive must not be to return evil for evil, but to use the principle of government to bring an out-of-control husband to his senses. No one does an abusive husband a favor by allowing him to continue degrading himself and his wife with violence.
The Nature Of Godly Submission. The woman who passively allows her husband to abuse her may be sincerely trying to be obedient to the principles of 1 Peter 3:1-6. Or she might be bearing her trauma silently in the belief that to report the abuse would result in even greater endangerment. In either case, it needs to be noted that Peter was asking women for a specific kind of submission. In the following pages, we will see that he was calling for the kind of godly submission that invites a husband to be the servant leader God made him to be. Peter's intent was not to help abusive husbands indulge in the childish lust for power and control that Jesus condemned (Mk. 10:42-43; 1 Pet. 3:7).
The Example Of Christ. The immediate context of 1 Peter 3:1-7 says that we must be willing to suffer as Christ suffered for us. Peter reminded us that Jesus suffered unfair treatment without returning insult for insult or evil for evil.
This may sound like a reason for not reporting or opposing an abusive husband. But think about how Christ suffered for us. Jesus was first of all submissive to His Father in heaven. His submission was always tempered by what brought honor to God and help to others. He was willing to suffer. But His suffering was for doing good, for seeking the life and well-being of others. Jesus wasn't indulging the evil actions of His enemies and submitting to their selfish whims.
For these reasons and others we believe that it is a dangerous myth that Christian women must not oppose abusive husbands. Applying 1 Peter 3:1-6 in this way, however, requires a woman to think carefully about why and how she is living out the kind of submission Peter was calling for.
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There are many issues stirring inside the wounded heart of an abused woman. Besides the pain and confusion, there is also fear, the desire to be loved, and anger. At any given moment, one or more of these can influence an abused wife's response to her abuse.
The Fear Within.
A woman in an abusive situation is often terrified. Without question, she has much to fear. She is legitimately afraid of losing everything she holds dear--her husband, her children, her financial support, her house, her family reputation, and her physical and emotional well-being, to name a few.
Abused women readily identify with the fear David expressed in Psalm 55 over being deeply betrayed by a close friend:
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, "Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest--I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm." . . . If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it . . . . But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend . . . . My companion attacks his friends; he violates his covenant. His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords (Ps. 55:4-8,12-13,20-21).
But while there is much to be afraid of, there is a distinct difference (though often difficult to see) between being afraid and being controlled by fear. An abused woman who's controlled by her fear has lost all confidence that she can make any kind of difference in her life. She feels powerless to stop the endless cycle of abuse. She has learned to tolerate abuse and lives with the constant terror that she is helpless and that her situation is hopeless. In essence, she is paralyzed by fear.
Jill spoke of how she repeatedly turned down the invitations of family and friends to attend social gatherings that she really wanted to attend. She was afraid that if she left Sam alone, she might make him angry. She lived her life striving for his approval by doing all she could to avoid his angry disapproval and possible rejection. But what Jill eventually discovered was that she could never do enough for him no matter how hard she tried. Something was always wrong or at least deficient with what she did. She felt as though she never measured up to his demands. And for that failure, she came to believe that she deserved Sam's abuse.
In many cases, an abused woman's greatest fear is that her husband may abandon her. She mistakenly believes that without his acceptance and presence in her life she can't survive. Her heart flinches at the thought of being left alone. She doesn't necessarily want him out of her life, she just wants him to stop hurting her. If he does end up rejecting her, what will that say about her? What will others think? What about the children? What about the economic hardship? How will they make it on their own?
The abused woman needs to remember that her well-being is not in the hands of her husband. While she will be profoundly hurt if he leaves her, her hope must be in the Lord. She will make a great mistake if she forgets her real source of life, takes matters into her own hands, and, to avoid being abandoned by her husband, tolerates the abuse.
First Peter 3:6 says that a submissive woman who trusts God does "not give way to fear." The context of 1 Peter 2:13-3:6 shows that she is not to shrink back from a flawed husband in a passive, inactive way. Rather, she is to be actively engaged in submissively doing "what is right" (3:6) and not being controlled by the kind of fear that would keep her from doing so.
When violence occurs or is threatened, an abused woman's choices are more difficult, but the principles must remain the same. She must trust God and not return evil for evil, do what is right and not give way to fear, and offer the gentle spirit that can draw out the best in her husband.
She may need help from church elders or mature women in the church. They can help her see that allowing her husband to beat her into a "submission" that indulges his lust for control and power is not the kind of submission Peter was talking about.
The Desire Within.
An abused wife also struggles with her intense desire for more of her husband's loving involvement. Her heart legitimately yearns for this, yet there are many occasions when she believes she can no longer live with the painful hope of wanting more love from him with no guarantee that she'll get it. Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." When the painful emptiness seems overwhelming, she tends to use self-hatred to deaden the part of her heart that hopes for more ("The abuse is my fault"). Self-hatred helps to deaden her hope and desire for more by allowing her to reason that she doesn't deserve her husband's love because of her flaws. This is a subtle way of easing her pain and protecting herself, because it keeps her from being put in a position where she might be let down again.
An abused woman often becomes so numb that her personal judgment is impaired. When she shuts down internally, she forfeits the opportunity to be the kind of wife her husband needs. She gives way to fear and feels unable to seek the intervention her out-of-control spouse needs. Instead of seeing that her husband needs confrontation and that there is no excuse for his behavior, she tends to tolerate and minimize the abuse with statements like, "He had a tough day at the office," or "At least it wasn't as bad as the last time."
The Anger Within.
Although she may not always be fully aware of it, anger is usually present in the heart of an abused wife. Is it wrong for her to be angry about being abused? Absolutely not! God Himself hates marital violence (Mal. 2:16). He wants us to be angry about the things that anger Him (Prov. 6:16-19; Eph. 4:26). Part of sharing His goodness is to develop a holy hatred and intolerance for sin in ourselves and in others (Rom. 12:9).
The problem, however, is not that an abused wife is angry over her husband's mistreatment, but that her anger may turn into a vengeful rage that seeks to return evil for evil. If she does not patiently work through her own anger, she will lose the inner character that Peter said is a woman's unfading beauty (1 Pet. 3:4-5). Unresolved, vindictive anger will gradually turn her into a hard woman with an attitude that will eventually distance her from others as well.
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Fear grips the heart of an abused wife who at some level struggles to be loved and wanted. The fear that her husband's abandonment will destroy her coupled with the anger that he is abusing her are two main factors that motivate her external response to being abused. Most responses can be categorized as either passive or vindictive. In many instances, fear prompts a passive response and anger arouses a vindictive response. An abused wife is capable of both, though a passive response is far more common.
The Passive Response.
This is the response that tolerates the abuse. It occurs in all three stages of an abusive marriage. A passive response pursues peace at any cost and flees from any kind of confrontation. Many would view a woman responding this way as a "doormat" for her husband to trample. While she may be angry over the way he's abusing her, she cowers at the thought of doing anything that might incur her husband's anger. She labors to appease her husband and "walks on eggs" so as not to arouse the sleeping giant lest she or her children bear the brunt of his violent rage.
Some would interpret this woman's passive response as a way of showing love to her troubled husband. But is she loving well? Is she helping her husband by not confronting his sin? Focusing on her own self-protection is understandable. But facing the possibility of physical risk isn't the greatest danger. Worse would be the prolonged loss of her own honor. Worse would be following a path of self-protection that allows the abuse to continue and her own love to grow cold and weak.
The Vindictive Response.
Occasionally, an abused wife will lash out at her husband. Although she's still frightened about many things, there are occasions when she's been pushed far enough for her anger to dictate her response. To some degree, she feels disappointment and seeks to do harm to the man who has cruelly mistreated her. Instead of passively enduring the abuse out of fear, this time she is going to make her husband pay.
At times, an abused wife may try to get even with a sarcastic or demeaning comment. She may even try to physically strike back or threaten to seek a divorce. Quite often, however, an abused wife's revenge is more passive-aggressive. She may let the house go, or make her husband late for church or social engagements, or fail to give him an important phone message. This is her subtle way of getting even and controlling him for a change.
The thought, "How can I best love my husband?" is the furthest thing from the mind of a woman who's seeking revenge. And that's a problem. Peter told us that if we are following Christ's example of suffering, we will not retaliate nor threaten those who have harmed us (1 Pet. 2:23). Instead, we are to entrust ourselves into the hands of "Him who judges justly." Romans 12:17-19 says that revenge is not a weapon that God has placed in the arsenal of the Christian warrior.
There is a better way for a wife to respond to her husband's abuse. This higher path is not easier. It doesn't offer any guarantees of immediate outcome. In some ways it might even increase the risk of loss. But as we've already suggested, there is no easy path for an abused woman. There is no way to play it safe. The only real choice a woman has is whether she is going to try to seek the security of her own strategies, or whether she is going to place herself in the hands of God while trusting in His presence and in His ability to provide for her, even in the middle of a troubled and chaotic existence.
The Godly Response.
There is no better path for an abused woman than the path that bears the footprints of the One who suffered for her sins. For a woman caught in the confusion and chaos of abuse, it is a path that must be taken one step at time. Trustingly and patiently she learns to walk in a way that reveals the heart of God to her husband. Her goal is not merely to survive, but over a period of time to let God develop her own heart even as she lovingly and courageously challenges her husband to be the kind of man God wants him to be.
In 1 Peter 3, Peter described a submissive wife as being a woman of inner beauty, which does not fade with age. She has a soft, gentle heart that she neither hides nor hardens but willingly offers to her husband. She is not demanding or contentious (v.4). She is a hopeful woman (v.5) because her hope is not in her husband but in the Lord. Her hope is in her Shepherd, who values the beauty of her heart enough to die for her (1 Pet. 2:25). Peter told women that they will become daughters of Sarah by faith if they "do what is right and do not give way to fear" (v.6). That statement is critical for a woman to understand if she is going to learn how to be submissive in a godly way.
"Do not give way to fear." By this phrase, Peter reminded us that a godly woman will not retreat from the road of obedience because of her fear. While still being clearly aware of the risks involved, she will put her hope in God and choose to do what is best for her spouse. While still being afraid of his abuse or abandonment, she will conclude, with David, that in spite of all the dangers, "As for me, I trust in You" (Ps. 55:23). Her security will not be in her husband who is unreliable, but in her trustworthy God whose perfect love for her has allowed her to break free from bondage to her fear (1 Jn. 4:18).
"Do what is right." This phrase calls a woman to be devoted to doing what is good for others. Some have labeled abused women as loving their husbands too much. That probably isn't true. It is not likely that they loved too much but that they developed a distorted view of what is good and loving for their mate.
Jesus addressed the issue of doing good when He said, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (Lk. 6:9). Note the contrast and the explanation. The contrast: In our relationships with others, either we are on the side of doing good or we are on the side of doing evil. There is no middle ground. A person's heart is revealed by the way he treats others. The explanation: Doing good means doing what is necessary to save and preserve life. Doing evil means doing what is necessary to kill and destroy life.
By implication, a lovingly submissive wife is called to be engaged in doing what she can "to save" and preserve the life of her spouse. This is submitting to (aligning herself under) God's good purposes for him as a man and fulfilling God's design for her as a woman.
Later in Luke 6, Jesus taught the paradoxical truth of loving one's enemies. He used the same word for "do what is right [or good]" when He said:
If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them . . . . Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (vv.33,35).
By implication, a wife is called to do good to her husband even when he is abusive.
What does it look like to "do what is right"? Rather than tolerating abuse, a biblically submissive and loving wife will creatively learn to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove (Mt. 10:16) in exposing him and letting others know about the destructiveness of his abuse, and to invite him to know the goodness of God's mercy. Doing good involves a degree of surprise that exposes and disarms the abuser's attempts to control and do harm, while providing him an opportunity to repent and begin to love and lead his wife sacrificially.
In doing just that, one woman wisely used a voice-activated tape recorder to capture the barrage of verbal and physical abuse that no one in her church believed she was enduring in her home. Her husband had convinced others in his church that she was the problem. But when the evidence was heard, the truth became abundantly clear and the process of church discipline began (Mt. 18:15-20).
Another woman began to enforce consequences in her relationship with her husband by informing him that if he ever hit her or physically intimidated her again, she was going to report him to the police and press charges. Following through was the hard part. A restraining order, a legal separation, and requiring him to have extensive counseling were all part of respectfully holding him accountable for his actions and inviting him to repent.
There is no guarantee of how a husband will respond to a loving wife who exposes the evil of his abuse. Even Jesus, whose love was perfect, at times aroused hostility from those He loved (Mk. 3:1-6). All too often, the abuser has so hardened his heart that he is unwilling to admit his sin and accept any responsibility for harm caused to others. In such cases, separation may be the only "severe mercy" that can be offered to him.
A godly woman does not let her abusive husband off the hook. She makes no excuses for his abuse. Rather, she uses her freedom in Christ to expose the evil of the abuse so that the secret is out and others now know what he has been doing. Her reason for exposing him is not to be vindictive, making him pay for the way he has violated her. Instead, she will be motivated by her loving respect for him because she believes in his potential of becoming the kind of loving man he could be if he submitted to Christ's leadership in his life.
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Whenever there has been long-term abuse in a marriage relationship, reconciliation is difficult. If it occurs, it will not happen quickly. The process of restoration is slow and arduous. Many times it will feel like three steps forward and two steps back. There are no simple methods to follow nor guarantees of success.
Reconciliation must not be misunderstood as encouraging a woman to return to the abusive cycle. Paul used the word reconciliation to denote the cessation of hostility in a relationship (Eph. 2:11-18). The cost of bringing reconciliation between sinful, rebellious people and a holy God was the death of Christ.
In the same way, reconciliation means a cessation of hostility on the part of the abuser against the victim. It means that he must do whatever it takes to ensure that there is not a return to the destructive patterns of the past.
Rebuilding a relationship marred by abuse must eventually cross over the bridge of forgiveness. For many abuse victims, the thought of forgiving their abuser sounds like betrayal because it feels like they are letting them off the hook for what they've done. The pattern of forgiveness spoken of in Luke 17:3-4, however, makes it clear that forgiveness is also a process that lovingly holds the abuser accountable for his actions. (For a more thorough explanation of the process of forgiveness, see RBC booklet When Forgiveness Seems Impossible CB941.)
What if an abusive husband is not willing to go through the process of reconciliation? Then a wife must continue to follow a path of spiritual counsel and legal action. Just as Jews understood that strong "no work" Sabbath laws could be set aside if an animal fell into a pit (Mt. 12:9-13), so allowances and exceptions need to be made when women and children find themselves in danger. This is the teaching of our Lord.
Old Testament divorce laws were a merciful provision (Dt. 24:1-4). Even though God hated divorce (Mal. 2:16), it appears that He preferred divorce to the abuse of women and children.
God Himself divorced the northern tribes of Israel (Jer. 3:8). He took such action only after enduring their prolonged spiritual unfaithfulness, which He compared to sexual unfaithfulness.
A wife who is married to a physically abusive husband may not be sinning if she seeks divorce action--even if her husband is not guilty of sexual immorality (Mt. 19:1-12). Such a wife, however, must give careful consideration to the name and reputation of Christ and the biblical procedures for confronting a sinning brother (Mt. 18:15-17).
As noted earlier, Jesus taught that sometimes the spirit of the law allows specific legal requirements to be overridden (Mt. 12:1-13). By His own example, Jesus allowed His hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, just as He also took the opportunity to heal a man with a crippled hand on a day when no work was to be done.
The apostle Paul seems to have had this same spirit of the law in mind when he wrote, "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife" (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In a situation that did not involve sexual unfaithfulness, Paul said that there was no freedom to remarry. This keeps open the preferred option of reconciliation. (For a complete explanation of the biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage, see RBC booklet Divorce And Remarriage: What Does The Bible Teach? Q0806.)
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A woman in an abusive marriage cannot break the chains of her imprisonment without the wise and well-orchestrated involvement of a compassionate community. Unfortunately, the church has too often been ill-prepared and even hesitant to get involved in such messy situations. Thus, many women don't seek help from the church but have turned to outside agencies and services instead.
God indicted the religious leadership of Ezekiel's day because, He told them, "You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally" (Ezek. 34:4). The call of the people of God is to minister to those who are hurting and in desperate need of assistance.
1. Be prepared to get involved. Plan ahead. Don't be caught off guard. If a church is truly committed to ministering to families in today's cultural chaos and to be lights in a dark world, then it must be prepared to provide the needed support structure. This will enable a woman to lovingly hold her husband accountable without the perpetual threat of physical harm and financial ruin. Consult with professionals in your area to find out how to implement intervention with an abuser and how to provide protection for a victim and her children. Also, seek liability insurance to protect the church from litigation. It's a small price to pay for the added potential risk in dealing with these situations.
2. Maintain follow-through. Be persistent. It's easy to get discouraged when working with individuals who come from abusive homes. Progress is usually slow and almost seems nonexistent at times. Expect the unexpected. It can be draining work, so don't allow only a few people to carry the load. Don't become weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9-10). An extensive prayer ministry is needed to support this frontline, hand-to-hand combat.
3. Establish a referral network for helping both victims and abusers. This includes housing, food, clothing, medical services, legal advice, protective services, professional counseling, and employment services. Don't be afraid to recommend the help of other reputable agencies. The church should be the focal point for coordinating the overall ministry efforts to help this wounded person become a healthier member of the body of Christ. But the church should not be expected to do it all themselves.
4. Hold the abuser accountable. Remember, the church is responsible to minister truth and mercy to both the abuser and the victim. The church is about the business of restoration. If there has been a separation due to physical violence, regular accountability must be maintained. If charges have been pressed and he is incarcerated, he should not be abandoned. He needs to know that while the church sides with God in hating his sin, they (like God) desire his restoration.
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If after reading this booklet you recognize that you are living in an abusive marriage, there are some important steps that you need to consider:
1. Admit that you are the victim of spouse abuse. You didn't ask for this. Don't take responsibility for the abuse. Don't pretend it will get better if you just ignore the problem or work harder to pacify your husband.
2. Get to a place of safety. If you are living in a situation of immediate danger in which you fear for your life, go to a friend or family member's house where you can safely call for help. If you don't have anyone you can go to, call a local shelter for abused women in your area.
3. Notify the authorities as soon as possible in the event of an attack. In most states, mandatory arrest laws have recently been passed to help ensure the safety of the victim of domestic violence.
4. Break the silence. If you have been terrorized by an abusive spouse, tell someone you trust about the abuse. But by all means, refuse to keep it quiet any longer. Tell your pastor, an elder, or a church leader. Talk to a counselor. Call a local domestic violence hotline in your area. Don't stop talking about it until someone begins to listen to you and takes your situation seriously.
Above all, when you feel as if there is no one else to turn to, you have the invitation of the One who suffered and died for you. It is Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt. 11:28).
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Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home by James and Phyllis Alsdurf (InterVarsity Press, 1989). This is an essential tool for pastors, counselors, and anyone who has been touched by the consequences of wife abuse.
Bold Loveby Dan B. Allender (NavPress, 1992). This is a provocative book that explores the biblical principles of forgiveness and courageous love for someone who has harmed you.
The Battered Woman by Lenore E. Walker (Harper Perennial, 1979). This is the groundbreaking book that brought to the forefront the peril of spousal abuse and domestic violence. It is not written from a Christian perspective, but it is well worth the reading to learn how to recognize the cycle of abuse.
Hot Line for Domestic Violence 1-800-777-1960
OTHER RBC BOOKLETS ON RELATED TOPICS:
When Help Is NeededCB931
When Forgiveness Seems Impossible CB941
When Anger Burns CB942
Divorce And Remarriage Q0806